Last month, I composed a flurry of blog-posts regarding the contemporary archaeology of death focusing on crematoria’s gardens of remembrance and cremation burials in churchyards. While the COVID-19 pandemic remains in full swing, and indeed in resurgence, I want to reflect on my lockdown visits to crematoria. My local crematoria looks no different, although it has been incredibly busy given the excess deaths caused by COVID-19. Likewise, my visit to Flintshire Crematorium was to collect the ashes of a family member who could not receive a funeral because of the lockdown: it looked as one would expect but for the closed office apart from by special appointment. Yet, I wish to comment on my visit to Margam Crematorium in South Wales where a host of new signs and re-arranged routes of movement mark the crematorium as a distinctive place during the pandemic. Here, coronavirus deaths are disposed of and commemorated along with all the rest, but it is also a place of death, disposal and commemoration where Welsh assembly regulations and local behaviours demanded significant changes to the immediate environs of the crematorium buildings.
My visit to the crematorium was a welcome addition to my only adventure to South Wales this side of January. I was en route to filming at Margam Abbey for the BBC, having the previous day filmed on Offa’s Dyke for ITV. Margam Crematorium is adjacent to the M4, and not far away, so it made sense to revisit this striking crematorium serving a range of communities in and around Port Talbot in West Glamorgan. In an industrial community where fire is integral to its livelihood and industry, the crematorium is a well-managed, pristine and expansive space set around an all-white set of modernist buildings.
Opened in 1969, Hilary Grainger (2005: 454-55) describes it thus:
quite unprecedented in its frank expression of Modernist forms, Margam is arguably the most dramatic design for a crematorium in Britain. Its bold configuration of geometric forms draws from European work, particularly that of Le Corbusier, and its monolithic formal elements contrast well with its natural setting.
Overlooking a reservoir, and with the motorway screened by trees, and a cemetery adjacent, it is a stark and grim, yet beautiful environment, with the focus being the chimney from whence the dead ascend from the ovens.
A groudsman was clearly suspicious regarding why I was mooching around taking photographs, but was friendly when I explained I was an archaeologist en route to film at Margam Abbey. As often happens in South Wales, he asked whether I was local – I look local, it seems – evidence of my South Walian heritage mayhaps?
I walked around the gardens of remembrance, noting the children’s memorial with its version of the SANDS sculpture, set on a prominent mound beside the car park.
Behind this memorial, I explored the long paths with small memorial plaques lining either side.
I reflected on the rectangular gardens planted with palm trees.
The lawns in between these more regular arrangements offer ample space for ash-scatterig.
I also looked around the woodland section beside the motorway, where a beech tree hosted graffiti in addition to floral offerings.
Memorial benches and rubbish bins of different designs punctuated my perambulation.
I had already encountered the (locked) toilet block beside the car park – white to match the main crematorium buildilngs. But now I approached the crematorium itself: stained glass alone interrupting the stark whiteness.
Now, before proceeding further to discuss the signs and measures to ensure social distancing for mourners, it is worth emphasising that signs already enforce behaviours in and around crematoria: issuing instructions and warnings.
This last one is perhaps the most formal ‘no smoking’ and ‘no mobile phones’ sign I’ve ever seen.
Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic, in the grounds, cones and barriers had been used to try and curtail particular behaviours. I’m not quite sure what this isolated cone denoted…
It looks lonely and desperate in its attempts to enforce… something.
Likewise this memorial bench being prevented from practical use where it presumably would otherwise attract gatherings.
So modern deathways are stark, beautiful, regulated and spacious memorial environments. Yet, the addition of temporary Coronavirus signs afforded a bleak reality of the curtailed nature of funerals at present and the difficulty the crematorium is clearly facing to prevent people mixing without social distancing during these times of elevated emotions and the expectation/requirement for close interaction between people who may not have seen each other for months or years. These comprise signs but also the repositioning of benches and hazard tape around the crematorium buildings themselves and their immediate associated features.
The signs on the approach road to the crematorium, however, are perhaps the most dire.
While these temporary traces might soon vanish once the coronavirus is over, the signs and restrictions on movement might have an enduring effect on the memories that attended a funeral at the crematorium during the pandemic. Whether the signs themselves seem fully necessary or overly draconian in their scale, messages and aesthetics, they are testament to the terrible human loss of life and the impact of the pandemic on our ways of dying, mortuary disposal and commemoration as well as the memorial landscape itself.
Grainger, H.J. 2005. Death Redesiged. British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape. Reading: Spire.